The Sensory Ethnography Lab:
Interview with J. P. Sniadecki, Stephanie
Spray, and Véréna Paravel
By Scott MacDonald
The filmmaking nurtured by the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) defies traditional ethnographic (and “ethnographic”) cinema, from Flaherty through Gardner and Asch, in several ways—most obviously, perhaps, in its refusal of didacticism: in the films of Barbash/Castaing-Taylor, J.P. Sniadecki, Stephanie Spray, Véréna Paravel, and Arno Danusiri, no narrator presumes to provide explanation or present conclusions. Indeed, many of these films often seem less like documentaries than like contributions to a particular development within what continues to be called “avant-garde film.”
The past quarter-century has seen an increased commitment on the part of some filmmakers to the contemplative representation of Place: cityscapes, landscapes, in all their complex variations and imbrications. Early premonitions of this development include Henwar Rodakiewicz’s Portrait of a Young Man (1931) and Ralph Steiner’s H20 (1929), and some decades later Nathaniel Dorsky’s Summerwind (1965) and Bruce Baillie’s All My Life (1966)—though the development of what had been a very sporadic approach occurs in the early 1970s with Larry Gottheim’s single-shot films—Fog Line (1970), for example—and the feature Horizons (1973), Robert Huot’s Snow (1971) and Rolls: 1971 (1972), J. J. Murphy’s In Progress (1972, co-made with Ed Small), Peter Hutton’s New York Near Sleep for Saskia (1972), Images of Asian Music (A Diary from Life) (1974), New York Portrait, Part I (1977), and James Benning’s 11 X 14 (1976) and One Way Boogie Woogie (1977). All of these films involve sustained contemplations of particular environments, often in shots of extended duration.
This particular development can be understood, on one level, as an implicit reaction to the increased homogenization of American place in the wake of the completion of the interstate highway system and the resulting development of national, then international, restaurant and retail chains. As they became increasingly threatened, the particularities of specific places seemed increasingly worthy of cinematic attention—indeed, of a kind of salvage ethnography. On a formal level, these films were reactions to the acceleration of commercial media during the 1960s and 1970s and the increasing overload of images per minute in commercials and commercial movies—as well as to the implicit training in hysterical consumption provided by this acceleration. These new contemplations of Place were/are about slowing down and seeing/hearing—considering—where we are.
By the 2000s, this cinema of Place was emerging as a major force in independent film and video. Peter Hutton—Time and Tide (2000), Skagafjördur (2004), At Sea (2007)—and Nathaniel Dorsky—Four Cinematic Songs (1996-2001) and Two Devotional Songs (2002-2004)—continued to build on the accomplishments of their early work; and, like Hutton, James Benning and Sharon Lockhart continued to mine the potential of the long-duration image. Benning’s 13 Lakes (2004) and Ten Skies (2004), and Lockhart’s Pine Flat (2005) are made up of series of 10-minute shots; and in NŌ (2003) and Double Tide (2009), Lockhart creates the illusion of even longer shots (30 minutes, 45 minutes, respectively). Benning’s entry into digital video allowed for shots of virtually any duration: Ruhr (2009) is made up of six 10-minute shots and one 60-minute shot. By the early 2000s, this durational approach to Place was finding appreciative audiences: a Film Comment poll published in May/June of 2010 named Dorsky and Benning the Top Filmmakers of the previous decade, and Hutton’s At Sea, the Best Film.
If the Sensory Ethnography Lab filmmakers have not been as extreme as Benning and Lockhart in their use of duration, they have learned to work with extended shots in comparable ways with comparable effect. Benning and Lockhart, and Hutton as well, are regular visitors to Cambridge (Lockhart made Double Tide while on a Radcliffe Fellowship; and Lockhart and Hutton are listed as “associates” of Robert Gardner’s Studio7Arts in Cambridge); their films are exhibited at the Harvard Film Archive, and have been an important part of the Sensory Ethnography Lab’s screenings. There are, however, significant differences between the films of Benning, Hutton, and Lockhart, and the videos of Barbash/Castaing-Taylor, Sniadecki, Spray, and Paravel
The fundemental difference is that the Sensory Ethnography Lab filmmakers do not assume a position of detachment from the world they record or from the people who are experiencing this world within their imagery. In the films of Hutton, Benning, and Lockhart, the human beings (and animals) we see, when we see any, are types, generally seen in long-shot: for example, Japanese farmers, small town kids, a woman clamming, in NŌ, Pine Flat, and Double Tide. On the other hand, with few exceptions, the human beings seen in the videos of Barbash/Castaing-Taylor, Sniadecki, Spray, and Paravel become characters, people with personalities as individual as their environments are particular. Further, unlike Benning, Hutton, and Lockhart, Barbash/Castaing-Taylor, Sniadecki, Spray, and Paravel are recording not what is out there, but what they can see from their position within a specific community that recognizes them—peceives them as well as being perceived—and understands what they are doing.
This difference has a number of formal dimensions. Benning, Hutton, and Lockhart always work with a tripod, and in most cases they record sound separately and post-sync their films (Hutton’s films have always been resolutely silent). In contrast, Barbash/Castaing-Taylor, Sniadecki, Spray, and Paravel usually hand-hold their cameras, not as a means of drawing particular attention to themselves-as-artists, but as a subtle emblem of their presence; and generally they record sound and imagery in sync. That is to say, they are more fully connected to both their subjects and their equipment than Benning, Hutton and Lockhart—though, of course, each of the SEL filmmakers articulates this connectedness in somewhat different ways.
With a single exception J. P. Sniadecki has worked in China, creating a series of videos—Songhua (2007), Chaiqian (Demolition, 2008), Sichuan Triptych (2010)—that function as visual synecdoches of a culture in transformation. Songhua was filmed in and around the Songhua River as it flows through the city of Harbin. Sniadecki provides the pleasure of growing to know the river and its immediate surround, by presenting a series of extended views (the first three shots are 93, 132, and 59 seconds, respectively) that gradually allow this complex environment to cohere; and he captures a wide range of people who, like himself, are using and enjoying the river and the activities around it—before revealing at the conclusion of Songhua that, according to Chinese state radio, the river had recently been the site of a massive chemical spill that had halted water supplies to tens of millions of people, and in fact had endured more than 130 water pollution accidents in the previous months.
Chaiqian explores a city block in Chengdu where a building has been demolished to make way for a major new construction project. Sniadecki works (as filmmaker) beside the men and women who are separating cement and metal and loading the harvested rebar onto trucks. From time to time, he interacts with these workers as he shoots, during breaks for meals and when Sniadecki and several workers spend an evening exploring Chengdu, as well as with some boys who ride bicycles on a half pipe next to the rubble. Implicit within the activities Sniadecki records and within his framing are issues of class difference and of social control: when a policewoman sees the laborers being filmed by Sniadecki in a public square, she intervenes. The men explain that Sniadecki is a Harvard graduate student, but the officer makes clear that workers are not allowed to draw a crowd in a public place, “people will think something is wrong.”
Sichuan Triptych records three separate locations: part 1 was filmed in Ganzi Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Western Sichuan, where the Chinese presence is represented by a cadre of soldiers who are seen and heard marching through the town; part 2, at the site of the massive earthquake that struck Qingchuan County in northern Sichuan in May, 2008. Part 3 begins in the city of Chengdu, then moves to a farm in central Sichuan, where Sniadecki records a family watching the opening of the Beijing Olympics on a tiny black-and-white TV—capturing the immense gap between an older generation of Chinese workers and the new, high-tech capitalism. As in Songhua Sniadecki’s approach in Sichuan Triptych is, on one hand, evocative of the formalist avant-garde—his sound-image compositions are inventive and suggestive—and, at the same time, engage individual Chinese on a personal level: Sniadecki interacts with various individuals, including in each location, a policeman who tells him that filming is forbidden. Sniadecki’s fascination with and affection for China is obvious, but the challenges of working there (for him and for Chinese workers) are regularly in evidence.
Stephanie Spray has made all of her videos in rural Nepal, filming with several families she has gotten to know over a period of years. Kale and Kale (2007) focuses on two men nicknamed “Kale” (Dharma Singh Gayek and Ram Bahadur Gayek) and their daily activities; Monsoon-Reflections (2008), on several of the Gayek women working in gardens, grooming each other, talking; and As Long as There’s Breath (2009), again on several members of the Gayek family as they manage their daily lives and converse about their experiences—including in one instance a remarkably candid conversation among several women about dildoes! Untitled (2009) is a single, continuous fourteen-minute shot of a man and a woman sitting in front of their dwelling, somewhat drunk, goofing around.
In each of these videos, Spray positions herself on the ground, implicitly within the circle of the group she is recording, as if her filmmaking is just another daily activity (which, of course, it is, for both Spray and her subjects). Like Sniadecki, Spray records in sync, but is particularly interested in working with off-screen sound in a manner similar to James Benning. During the second shot of Monsoon-Reflections, for example, Spray’s camera is positioned so that we see only a rice paddy, though we hear footsteps approaching through the water for more than a minute until an old woman, Chet Kumari Gayek, enters the frame. In Untitled Spray sits in front of the drunken couple, with her back to a street; vehicles and people, some of whom are acknowledged by the couple, pass behind Spray and her camera—heard but not seen.
With the exception of Sweetgrass, the most widely seen film to come out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab is Foreign Parts (2010), a feature-length collaboration between Sniadecki and Véréna Paravel, about the immense junkyard at Willets Point in Queens, New York—soon to be demolished to make way for urban “renewal.” Foreign Parts was instigated by Paravel’s 7 Queens (2008), during which she recorded scenes along the Number 7 subway line in Queens, which snakes through a series of ethnically diverse neighborhoods, including Willets Point. The complex automobile culture within Willets Point provides a fantasmagoria of image and sound, through the four seasons, and provides Sniadecki and Paravel with several memorable characters. Paravel’s cinematography and editing in Foreign Parts—like the editing and cinematography in 7 Queens—are frenetic, compared with other SEL films, though quite fitting for this particular neighborhood.
This composite interview with three of the Sensory Ethnography Lab filmmakers was begun in April, 2011 as a conversation with Véréna Paravel and J. P. Sniadecki during their visit to Colgate University to show Foreign Parts. It was expanded on-line with Paravel and Sniadecki, and subsequently with Spray, who was living in Nepal, during the summer and fall of 2010 and the winter of 2011. It is divided into four sections, the first focusing on their experiences at the SEL; the following three, on their video work.
On the Sensory Ethography Lab:
MacDonald: J.P., how did you get involved in the Sensory Ethnography Lab?
Sniadecki: I’d graduated with BA in Philosophy and Communications (mostly film and video courses) from Grand Valley State University in Michigan in 2002, and then in 2005 started at Harvard as a MA student in what is called Regional Studies: East Asia. That autumn, I went to a lecture course that Lucien [Castaing-Taylor] was teaching, called “Exploring Culture through Film.” I was new to Harvard, and I had a desire to get involved with filmmaking. I’d already learned that there was nothing available for graduate students, unless you lobbied to get into an undergraduate production class with Robb Moss or Ross McElwee or Alfred Guzzetti, which could take several semesters even if they were able to let you in—undergrads must be given priority for VES [Visual and Environmental Studies] courses. Lucien told me that in the spring of 2006 he was going to offer a course called Sensory Ethnography, which would be the first-ever graduate-level production course, and that I should apply.
I went to the interview and showed Lucien a film I had made as an undergrad at Grand Valley State (I’d been out of school for four years)—an activist film for a prison education program. I was lucky enough to get into the course, with no real idea of what it would be like—except that each of us would see a film through the planning, production, and post-production stages. At the first class meeting I was excited to learn that the course was designed to be a confluence of anthropology, nonfiction filmmaking, and contemporary art practices.
MacDonald: What did you do between finishing at Grand Valley State and matriculating at Harvard?
Sniadecki: I worked many different jobs. I drove truck; I washed dishes; I taught English in China; I brought courses in philosophy and film history into a medium-security prison. And I spent a lot of time traveling: I would work, make some money, then go off. I think those three-four years of traveling and observing the world really shaped my filmmaking, honed my attention to gesture, atmosphere, and sound-scape. At Grand Valley, I’d wanted to make films that were experiential and not didactic, but no one there was supportive. Traveling helped me imagine what these experiential films might be.
The first day of Sensory Ethnography, Lucien showed films by Sergei Dvortsevoy, Arthur Peleshian, along with Tacita Dean’s Banewl , the gorgeous hour-long 16mm film she shot during an eclipse in Greenland. The experience was stunning; these were the kinds of films I’d always wanted to see and to make. Sensory Ethnography immediately became the most galvanizing and important thing in my life.
We made little pieces for the course—exercizes in image and sound—and were constantly screening wonderful work by filmmakers, artists, and anthropologists. Then, after the first semester, we were to go away for the summer with Panasonic HVX-200 camera kits and shoot something more substantial, something that we would edit over the following fall semester and that would become our final project for the course.
The Sensory Ethnography Lab saved me from my initial aversion to Harvard—for me the speed and privilege with which Harvard functioned was a larger culture shock than living in China. It was Lucien’s very specific vision, his way of pushing the boundaries of ethnographic film, and documentary in general, that made me want to stay at Harvard. In the end I decided to do a Ph.D. My thesis focuses on the world of independent documentary film in China—no title yet.
MacDonald: Stephanie, how did you find your way to the Sensory Ethnography program?
I fell in love with Nepal in 1999 (studied Tibetan language, Buddhism, and tabla [a popular Indian percussion instrument, used in Hindustani classical music]) and was on what became a decade-long quest to stay in Nepal, but without having to get an office job—I really just wanted to hang out, study music, and speak Nepali. In the end, academia was the only route that seemed viable, so I ended up back in school.
I had gotten a B.A. in the study of religion at Smith, so it seemed logical to apply to religious studies programs where I thought I’d be able to get funding to continue my travels. I got a Masters of Theological Studies at the Harvard Divinity School in 2004 and then started a Ph.D. in the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard in 2005. I was starting to feel trapped in my program of study—so damn textual and discursive!—and about halfway into my first semester I was scouring the online course catalog for something that would give me creative outlets (I’d been involved in the visual and performing arts as a youngin’ in high school). I stumbled upon the newly listed course in Sensory Ethnography and had a ten-minute appointment with Lucien in the fall of 2005. He seemed reluctant to let a theology student with no real film background into the course, but somehow, I was admitted, along with J.P., in Spring 2006 and was, again like J.P., in the second run of the course in 2007-2008.
I transferred to the Anthropology Department in 2007 and am pursuing a Ph.D. in Anthropology, with two secondary fields—Film and Visual Studies and Critical Media Practice. So I came to Sensory Ethnography very circuitously, but in the end, it allowed for a rebirth of sorts.
Paravel: A very different path brought me to the Sensory Ethnography Lab. Back in France, I had completed a Ph.D in STS: Science, Technology, and Society, basically a mix of anthropology, history, sociology, and philosophy—in France we don’t have the same strict distinctions between anthropology and other fields. I’d worked closely with philosopher/anthropologist/sociologist Bruno Latour. My dissertation was on evolving forms of correspondence between scientists from the seventeenth century to today, from various epistolary genres up to email and the web.
After finishing, I found I had no desire to turn my thesis into a book. My husband and I moved to New York, and I did a post-doc at Columbia, but increasingly felt as if I were getting a slow divorce from academia. Every morning I would wake up with a film in mind, though I hadn’t as yet touched a movie camera.
During this time, people—Faye Ginsburg, Angela Zito—would ask me what I was “working on.” A typically American question! I’d explain that I was working on a paper that I wasn’t interested in, but that I had a very precise idea of a particular film I wanted to make. I’m not a cinephile. I grew up in Africa, totally unplugged and image-deprived—in a cocoon. Anyway, every time I had this conversation, the person I was talking to would tell me, “Oh, you should talk to this guy at Harvard, Lucien Taylor; he’s doing exactly what you want to do.”
One day I was sitting on a bench in Harvard Square (we had moved to Boston), talking to the guy sitting next to me. In my bubble, my obsession, I mentioned that I wanted to make films, and the guy keeps asking me questions and finally I learn that this is Lucien Taylor. Before I knew it, with two kids and a full-time job, I was taking the Sensory Ethnography class.
MacDonald: What was Castaing-Taylor like as a teacher?
Paravel: Lucien had a very strong posture, not a paradigmatic posture, but something really solid. At the time, he was teaching the class with Jeff Silva, and Jeff and Lucien would often come from opposite ends of the theoretical spectrum, which gave all of us in the seminar a certain freedom of movement, both theoretically and in our practice.
Sniadecki: What I found really helpful was that one day Lucien and Jeff would argue about a project from a seemingly very clear perspective, and the next day they would shift their positions and critique the project from a very different angle. We went through a process of having the conceptual rug pulled out from underneath us again and again, but while that can be a destabilizing process for awhile, in the end it allows you to find your own vision.
I think the term, “sensory ethnography lab,” is very appropriate, because it’s a laboratory with tools and space for seeking out the new, for experimentation and inspiration. Every morning, Lucien comes in with stacks of books, print-outs, news about art exhibitions—and films to show. You have cameras and microphones, equipment, but no one’s telling you that you have to make films this way. As Véréna suggests, it’s all about experimenting. What becomes most important for practically everyone involved is producing something with these tools, and this common emphasis on the creative process makes the experience feel very democratic.
Paravel: Part of the process is learning the courage to occupy an unsafe position, where you take risks and often receive harsh, blunt criticisms of your tentative, groping efforts. Many of us were holding a camera for essentially the first time.
Americans are constantly complimenting each other, telling one another “Great job!”—even in academia, which prides itself on being the space of contestation and disputation. That’s pedagogically worse than useless. You learn by being unsafe, by losing your footing and bearings, and the way to begin to feel some slight confidence in what you’re doing is to work through the criticism and push yourself in ways you wouldn’t have imagined otherwise.
Sniadecki: It’s important that you don’t have a safe place, that you don’t have one particular approach or set of conventions to rely on, and that when colleagues talk about your work, no punches are held.
Paravel: The first film I saw on the first day of class was Peleshian’s The Seasons . And I discovered Dvortsevoy. It was the beginning of a cognitive and creative revolution for me. The class turned out to be the perfect balance of screening films that provoked you in a multitude of different ways, reading eclectic works that gave you a theoretical grounding, and getting to play with a camera and sound recorder, experimenting to figure out new ways to encounter and evoke the Other. I was also sitting in on Lucien’s course on the history of transcultural film during the same period. Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare  blew me away. Jean Rouch’s Jaguar  is also way more fucked up and surreal and revolutionary than most people realize. Jana Ševčíková’s Old Believers  made me believe in God for a moment, the closest cinematic analogue to seeing spirit that I know (Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen  is a close second). Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss  is ninety minutes of transcendental bliss. We also saw The Nuer , and the scarification scenes struck me as some of the strangest and strongest film sequences I’d ever seen. And Vincent Monnikendam’s archival masterpiece Mother Dao, the Turtlelike  was mind-bending, and I adored Richard Rogers’ Quarry  and 226-1690 .
But if had to name just two works from that course that fucked with my mind, they’d be David Hammons’ Phat Free  and Steve McQueen's Girls Tricky . Hammons and McQueen are from the art world, which is so bizarrely cut off in the U.S. from the soi-disant avant-garde.
MacDonald: Stephanie, what aspects of the Sensory Ethnography course were most important for you?
Spray: Lucien encouraged us to make work that would have a life outside the classroom. To enable this, he could be incredibly generous, going to great lengths to provide the best equipment possible; a number of us were shooting in High definition video in 2007 when the rest of the department was still working in Standard def.
This generosity offset the onerousness of the standards he set for himself and his students, which made him demanding and sometimes, when disappointed, dismissive. He wasn’t one to commend students for effort alone, since what was most important was the quality of the work. Lucien never explicitly proposed any one way to shoot or edit, since he wanted students to find their own ways of making. This ambiguity was perhaps conceptually rooted in a critical, maybe even hostile, skepticism toward purported disciplinary and genre boundaries between ethnographic film, documentary, and art, each of which has its own brand of provincialism. Lucien’s opinions about work and his approach to teaching weren’t agreeable to everyone, but for me his unrelenting insistence that we expect more from ourselves and our work made him a great teacher.
The most important aspects of the course for me were its structure, the works screened and discussed as a class, and the ritual of the group crits. In the spring it was a crash course in critical viewing, punctuated by a series of exercises in recording and editing, plus revision upon revision of treatments for the projects we were to do in the summer. The summer months were transformative for me, since I focused wholeheartedly on the task of shooting in Nepal. The fall was our time to sort through footage and make something of it, culminating in screenings in the winter. This structure allowed students time to mature as a group and the opportunity to make strong work as individuals. Over the two semesters we saw hundreds of films, in class and at the Harvard Film Archive, and we were a ready-made community of critical viewers and thinkers engaging works by filmmakers and artists such as Petter Hutton, Anri Sala, Steve McQueen, Pedro Costa, Andy Warhol, James Benning, Jana Sevcikovic, Leonard Helmrich, Stephen Breton, Werner Herzog, David MacDougall, Jean Rouch, Tacita Dean, and Rebecca Baron (who taught one semester of Sensory Ethnography in spring 2008), among others.
A number of these makers were invited to class. Occasionally they would participate in the crit sessions, which were critical conversations following screened rushes or edited work, during which the maker remained silent. The ritual of excluding the maker from the circle made the discussion less personal, since she was not addressed and made to defend her work, and so the discussion could be more conceptually driven, as it put emphasis on the work independent of the maker’s intent or expectations.
J. P. Sniadecki
MacDonald: What was the instigation for Songhua ?
Sniadecki: In the autumn of 2005, just as I was starting the MA at Harvard, a case of environmental pollution in northeastern China made international headlines. A plume of nitrobenzene from a processing plant swept through the Songhua River and flowed on to contaminate the Amur River, which forms a boundary between China and Russia. This kind of accident happens along the Songhua and other Chinese waterways on an alarmingly regular basis; what drew international attention in this particular case was the fact that the Chinese authorities delayed issuing a warning not only to the residents of towns and cities along the Songhua within the Chinese border (most notably, Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, where Songhua was filmed) but also to the government and the inhabitants on the Russian side. Four days after the accident, when the Harbin government realized it had no choice but to report the pollution, I remember reading media descriptions of city residents flooding into supermarkets and buying out every available container of drinking water within an hour.
In the summer of 2006, as a member of the first cohort of Sensory Ethnography, I set out to make a film in collaboration with my Shanghainese friend Ding Yi that hinged on his parents’ experience as “sent-down” youth in the Great Northern Wasteland, which lies east of Harbin along the Russian border, and where his parents were stationed as revolutionaries to serve the people as schoolteachers and learn from the peasants in the countryside.
The film I had in mind would follow Ding Yi and his mother as they journeyed back to this far-flung corner of China and reconnected with her former students still living there. Another aspect of the film was to explore the relationship between this shared revolutionary past and the longing felt by Ding Yi, who came of age during the ever-expanding material culture of the post-1978 economic reforms, for an experience in his own upbringing as intense, galvanizing, and collective as his parents’ experience. We began shooting in Shanghai, focusing mostly on Ding Yi’s parents and their friends who were also “sent-down” youth, conducting informal interviews and gathering footage of conversations about the past.
Both Ding Yi and I were less than enamored with this quasi-talking-heads format, and reassured ourselves that we would be in the north soon and shooting more verite style scenes. On the long and packed train ride from Shanghai, we made a stop in Harbin, not only to rest before heading into the Great Northern Wasteland (which isn’t much of a wasteland now, as it has been transformed into large tracts of farmland and some industry), but also to visit with Ding Yi’s mother’s family who still live there.
On this layover, my friend Paola, who was accompanying us on the journey north, and I decided to record images and sounds along the city’s Central Avenue and the Songhua River, which we had heard about from the nitrobenzene spill eight months earlier. We followed the bustling avenue to its end, which spills out onto the river promenade, Stalin Park, along the Songhua River. We wanted to see the relationship between the city residents and their “mother river,” but this wasn’t our sole motivation.
Paola’s research focused on sound in Chinese society, and I had brought a Sensory Ethnography sound recorder for her to begin this inquiry. She wanted to get acquainted with the equipment and I was still tweaking my preferred settings for the Panasonic HVX200 camera. Our goal was to pass a day of exploration and experimentation. It just so happened that this layover day was July 1st , a Saturday that coincided with the 85th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party (in Songhua, there is a red banner celebrating the party’s birthday, floating in the water in the long wide shot of the men fishing with the net in the river).
We worked, mostly separately, recording the fishermen, the swimmers, the picnicking families, the karaoke singers, the kite-flying couples, the BBQ-ing Uighuyrs, the horseback riders, and everything under the sun. I was so thrilled to be shooting something spontaneous that I became totally absorbed. Paola had to drag me away from the river so that we could keep our dinner plans with Ding Yi’s family and friends. I went back to the Songhua River the next day and filmed with the same elation and excitement until the hour of our train’s departure for the Great Northern Wasteland.
When we got to the small city of Yingchun, we were greeted warmly and put up in an apartment by one of the students of Ding Yi’s mother who was now a very successful local pharmacist. We were shown around the new schools, public squares, and roadways, and “handled” at every moment by locals. Constrained to shoot in a primarily interview format and never allowed to have a moment to explore on our own, we grew more and more frustrated and fatigued by the overbearing hospitality of our hosts.
Also, over these two weeks, a misunderstanding began to develop between Ding Yi, his mother, and me around the nature of our collaboration. Ding Yi, who also brought along his own Handycam, expressed his aspiration to actually be the film’s director rather than a film-subject. His mother, for her part, revealed a prepared contract that stated Ding Yi was co-director, she was producer, and that it would be my responsibility to officially invite Ding Yi to the United States so that we could edit the film together at Harvard. At this, I decided to end the collaboration. Ding Yi’s mother demanded the thirty-five hours of DV tapes I had shot, claiming that she did not trust me to edit them. After much discussion, I reluctantly gave them to her just before Paola and I boarded the train back to Harbin.
Paola continued south while I stayed for two weeks along the Songhua River, recording the scenes you see in the film all day long and, at night, sleeping in a dingy guesthouse on the other side of town. I was still troubled by the falling out with Ding Yi and his mother; in hindsight, I can see that the joyful and liberating shooting experience of Songhua not only helped me recover and make sense of what had transpired with the failed collaboration, but also solidified my cinematic voice. Songhua is a portrait of a place, comprised of a montage of small gestures and fleeting moments in public space, free of many of the more sticky ethical issues and personal entanglements of representation and collaboration. The people, the architecture, the material items along the river did not make demands on me, and for the most part I did not ask anything of them beyond being. The film hinges on open-ended perception, on a quiet experience of being and atmosphere, and a meditation on the relationship between the environment and human development.
Since then, all the nonfiction films I’ve made have been motivated by a sense of place. Songhua, Demolition, The Yellow Bank , and Foreign Parts have all been responses to a visceral and intuitive attraction to environments, atmospheres, and urban spaces that are both expressive of their cultural context, yet also fascinatingly unique: a river park, a worksite, an architectural waterway, and a New York junkyard.
After seeing Ed Pincus’ Diaries  and the work of Alain Cavalier, I’ve recently been filming things in my daily life—chance encounters or fleeting moments—although I have no idea what I might do with these diary-like jottings.
MacDonald: One of the things shared by many of the films that have come out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, including your Demolition, is an interest in physical labor.
Sniadecki: Labor is super-interesting for cinema. The Lumières filmed people involved in labor, and Grierson was drawn to it as well. Sensory Ethnography cultivates an interest in people’s relationship to their environment, and one very obvious way that people relate to their environment is through their labor.
I’d just gotten back to Chengdu after being denied access to a film project in the north of the province, and happened to be walking in the center of the city when I came across that amazing, yet typical demolition site, the day after the building had been demolished. I began filming with the two crews of workers (all from Renshou County in Sichuan); they stayed on the site for three weeks, and I shot during that time. I re-connected with a few of them at another site, and went back to the village of the man working with the blowtorch (Gao Jianqing), where I filmed with him and his family, though I didn’t use that material in the film. I did write about my experiences with Gao Jianqing for Media Fields online journal. I wanted Demolition to end with the sense of transience, of people moving in and out of the city and in and out of each other’s lives.
MacDonald: The opening shot of Chaiqian, in each of the several versions I've seen, creates an optical illusion: a man seems to be sitting on a flat surface on the ground, but when a worker walks into the image, we realize that the man is actually a distance above the ground. I read this as a metaphor for the realities of class structure in China, an issue that comes up several times in the film, including at the end when the policewoman questions you and the workers. Is that how you understand that opening shot?
Sniadecki: As a relatively vague Marxist and a closet class warrior, I quite like your reading. I would imagine, though, that the critique of class in China would be perhaps more legible, poignant, and concentrated when that opening shot transforms into the 360 degree pan that moves away from the moment you describe and sweeps across the worksite of laborers actually pounding and cleaving concrete from the valuable, bound-to-be-recycled rebar. There you have the middle-aged migrant workers, in tank tops and flip-flops, no protective gear or hard hats, bent over their tools, sweating on the mounds of gray rubble, while the four managers perched atop of the skate park half-pipe structure stare down on this blow-out battlefield of demolition which they command.
You’re right about the issue of class in China today penetrating practically each shot of Chaiqian (Demolition), and forming a theme of the film overall. After all, economic inequality in China is conspicuous and so extreme in degree and scope that it’s reflected in practically every image one might take of China today.
But the pedestrian you mention who reveals the actual depth of the space by stepping into the frame before this full-circle pan is, in fact, not a worker, but rather a city resident using the space of the lot opened by the demolition process to access the other boulevard. I see that illusory moment you describe, when viewers are surprised that what they took to be a flat ground surface is revealed to be a much more complex and vacuous space, as a cue or signal as to how to watch the entirety of the film. Things may not be what they seem, and all fields and layers of the image are activated. Scanning each long-take image, one may discover many important or compelling details, revelations, or tiny narratives in the corners, in the slow disclosure of space and event within each shot.
MacDonald: In each of the three sections of Sichuan Triptych, a policeman tells you to stop filming—and it’s clear that at the end of Chaiqian, it’s your camera, the camera of a visitor to China, that instigates the policewoman’s intervention. What in general is the experience of filming in China like for you; are these moments unusual or do they happen regularly—I assume the latter since they become a motif in Sichuan Triptych.
Sniadecki: As a foreigner filming in China, I encounter a range of responses. Sometimes it is curiosity. In Songhua, for example, there were times when I would be filming a quiet moment with one person along the river promenade and crowded around behind me were twenty or thirty people, wondering what the foreigner was up to, trying to steal a glance through the viewfinder, asking other bystanders what was going on. And, without fail, every night I went out for a stroll with the workers from Chaiqian (Demolition)—we went out every night together—a plainclothes policeman, or a security guard, or even a citizen on the street would accost us and either demand to know what I was doing filming these men and women, or, in some cases, try to prevent me from filming. We would have to explain that we were friends before these interlopers would leave us alone.
This is more a matter of “face” in China; these people were trying to protect the national image of China and believed the foreigner with the camera should not be focusing on these uneducated migrants from the countryside, but rather film the state-of-the-art infrastructure or stories of educated and wealthy Chinese that would bring international prestige to the country. In situations like these, I sometimes wish I had another cameraperson filming everything that is going on behind and around the camera. Such footage might make an interesting addition to a film, or perhaps could form the subject matter for another film entirely devoted to these various reactions to the politics of representation.
Other times the response is more prohibitive. In terms of these more confrontational or antagonistic official obstacles to filming in China, I do get stopped, questioned, and sometimes even forced to erase what I’ve filmed. In addition to concern over the potential loss of “face” in international media, negative reactions by people working in an official capacity are usually due to their concern that what I film will be posted online or used in such a way that may bring reprimand or punishment. Essentially, they are afraid they will lose their job. This is entirely understandable.
Unlike some journalists or other filmmakers, I tend not to pursue sensitive topics or places just for the sake of their status as spectacles or their potential for causing a stir—but in the process of shooting what I see as necessary for a particular film project, sometimes these reactions are unavoidable. In fact, I have encountered this during the shooting of every film, and recently on every shoot during production of my upcoming film on China’s railway system. Inevitably, while I’m filming on the trains, the train workers or even the train chief him/herself will come down upon me and insist I stop filming. Sometimes they even bring me into their little office on the train and ask to review all the footage and demand I delete any footage containing train workers or any identifying markers, such as the train number.
Overall, it is hard to know what is considered sensitive or taboo, since the political climate regularly shifts in China. And all this is mitigated by the particular sensibility of the individual I am dealing with: some officials are more paranoid and controlling; others are less concerned. It’s all very ad-hoc. But the big no-no’s—Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, the Cultural Revolution, and Tiananmen Square—will always be taboo.
MacDonald: How did the three sections of Sichuan Triptych come together? Did you originally imagine a Triptych?
Sniadecki: Yes, the film was originally conceived as a three-part film. It was the summer of 2008; the Tibetan uprisings had broken out in March; the earthquake devastated Sichuan in May; and the Olympics were a month or so away. I arrived in China in June after the uprisings and the earthquake, and was only going to be there for three months that summer, so I knew I couldn’t stay in Sichuan for the year or more and work towards a film that would contain within it a sense of depth and investment that long-term projects can produce. At the same time, I felt compelled to respond in some cinematic way to the immensity and tragedy of what had happened in China in 2008. I felt a particular connection and responsibility to Sichuan, having spent the previous summer there shooting Chaiqian (Demolition) and working on a video for a medical exchange program to serve Sichuanese orphans in need of treatment for orthopedic and burn complications. But what could I do in three months?
I thought it would be interesting to make something elliptical, something like a visual essay piece—but relying almost entirely on image and sound without voice-over or explanatory title cards—about the way national events shape the everyday and, conversely, how the everyday refracts the national event. I still wanted to work in a mode that allows the lived-experience, environment, and rhythms of the local world shape the film. But I wanted these very localized experiences and sensations to be placed in dialogue with the tension of the uprising, the tragedy of the earthquake, and hubris of the Olympics.
It was a bit of a challenge to film the first part of the triptych, which was set in a small monastery town in a Tibetan area of western Sichuan, because there was a ban on selling foreigners bus tickets from Chengdu (the provincial capital) out west to any Tibetan areas of Sichuan. So I had to first take a bus to Ya’an, the furthest west they would sell, and then find transportation out to the city of Kangding, where the grasslands and mountains of Greater Tibet begin. To get even further out into the grasslands, I had to hide on the floor of a minivan that left Kangding at 5:00 A.M. in order to blow past the checkpoint.
Once I got to the town, which was actually relatively calm during the March uprisings, the military presence was quite intense and for the first few days I tried to lay low and keep my shooting to a minimum. As time went on, though, I became more and more bold (or maybe just more and more impatient), and filmed more often and more openly. I was surprised when the only reprove I attracted was the scene included in the film when the young soldier jogs over to me and asks me politely not to film his platoon doing exercises. This is totally understandable, because filming the military is illegal in most every country I can think of, including China.
For the second part, I worked with the same organization for which I made the medical exchange video. I volunteered to help with donations to a school in Qingchuan, a county in northern Sichuan that was hard-hit by the earthquake. At the time, all the New York Times articles were coming out about the shoddy school construction and enraged parents seeking justice. In this climate, access to the disaster site and the ability to film were extremely restricted. As soon as we showed up in Qingchuan, the local officials were on top of us and held us for questioning for a few hours. I was only able to shoot twenty minutes of footage there, and most of it ended up in the second part of the triptych.
The final part of the film was much less complicated to film, as the migrant worker and his peasant family you see depicted are actually friends I made on the worksite while filming Chaiqian (Demolition). I begin with the father—who is actually the man who praises the camera’s functions during an evening meal in Chaiqian (Demolition)—working on the demolition site of a school severely damaged during the earthquake. The Olympic torch is supposed to pass nearby (and the gathered crowd actually never gets to see it, because the security surrounding the torch was so tight that they constantly re-routed the torch’s itinerary and only official invitees were able to catch sight of it), but he is too busy working to join the expectant crowds. Later, we follow him to his countryside home outside the city and he sprays his rice fields, prepares dinner for his family, and sits down with some beer and rice wine to watch the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games.
MacDonald: What the three films have in common is a focus on aspects of Chinese life that are international issues/events: you provide a sense of how these big issues affect “people on the street.”
Sniadecki: Yes, that was the goal from the beginning. I had been reading the work of anthropologist Veena Das, who has done fascinating studies on how national events and tragedies in India (for example, the 1948 Partition, as well as the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and the subsequent anti-Sikh riots) ripple into daily experience, weaving raw pain and a grinding, droning form of social suffering into the fabric of the everyday. In terms of film form, I was also interested in challenging myself (and the audience) with a rather open-ended treatment of the relationship between the large-scale event, the local ecology, and the “people on the street” or in the fields, as it were. Oftentimes, when you bring conceptually abstract and disparate things together, there can be pressure to designate clear connections, causal relationships, and definite propositions. Sometimes the results of such moves of delimitation are illuminating; other times, they seem like an awkward reaching towards something untenable. I wanted the film to have an atmosphere of possible meanings that were subtle, less ambitious, and grounded in the triangular experience of the filmmaker, film-subject, and film viewer.
MacDonald: The final shot in Sichuan Triptych is loaded with implication. We see the little girl “singing” the Chinese national anthem to open the Olympics, on a tiny television in a humble worker’s home. Again, the class issue is apparent—as is the gap between the immensely high-tech, spectacular opening of the Games, probably the most high-tech in history, and the very low-tech world of manual labor. Your camera contemplates the space of the man’s home, which includes the tiny black-and-white television on which we see the spectacular opening of the Olympics—three layers of reality, and three layers of time, in one.
I also see a declaration of cinematic principle here: your one-person method of making media is as far from the elaborate production of the Games as is the working man’s home—and the shot suggests that you stand with the worker, as opposed to the New China represented by the Beijing Olympics and by the worldwide media system that broadcast the Games.
Sniadecki: Well, in that shot, I am literally standing/sitting in the living room with my friend, the migrant worker. And, yes, my rather lo-fi, personal approach to filmmaking is a far cry from Zhang Yimou’s lavish opening ceremony. But that final sequence of shots in Sichuan Triptych is loaded with not just one implication, but rather with many possible implications. This ambiguity, rather than nailing down a singular meaning, raises questions and leaves space for multiple (and even competing) interpretations and inquiries. The little girl, who reportedly hails from Sichuan, is actually lip-synching the national anthem as that adorable congregation of children—each selected as a representative of one of China’s 56 ethnic minorities—carry the national flag to the PLA soldiers, thus demonstrating national ethnic harmony.
This moment not only refers back to the two earlier segments of the triptych—the PLA soldiers receiving the flag recall the military drill march through the “ethnic” Tibetan town, and the singer’s Sichuan origin serves as an homage to the earthquake—but also raises questions about official representation of the nation-state in China: How is it conceived? What is authentic? What can be trusted? Who is speaking for whom? And, as you pointed out, we view this national spectacle of ascendancy and harmony through the poor TV reception of a small, gritty screen in a peasant’s rural home.
But, in addition to registering the stark contrast between the power and pomp of the ceremony and the modest living conditions of my friend, it is important to note that this shot can also be construed in another, perhaps countervailing way. China’s economic miracle would not be possible without the back-breaking labor my friend from the countryside contributes to urban growth, and he is singing along with the national anthem, enjoying a celebratory meal he earned with his urban labor, perhaps feeling somehow a part of the big Olympic party in Beijing. This pride can be read as a testament to the degree to which the standard of living and the opportunities for economic improvement in individual lives in China have increased in the past thirty years. Party supporters would point out that this is all due to its leadership, and detractors would say it is in spite of it. Regardless, I wanted all these possible meanings to operate in that final shot.
MacDonald: Stephanie, what motivates you to work on the particular subjects you choose?
Spray: This is a surprisingly difficult question, Scott. In Kale and Kale , Monsoon-Reflections , and As Long as There’s Breath , I focused on the everyday lives of antiheroes, people who get by in life by tolerating rather than overcoming their problems. I gravitated toward some of these subjects not because they have the usual kind of charisma you find in many documentary subjects, but rather what I saw as the filmic discernability of the weight of their being—for lack of a less clunky phrase (I believe the subject who most exemplifies this is Bindu, the middle-aged woman and field hand in Monsoon-Reflections and As Long as There’s Breath).
In my work I’ve been interested in how this quality can be evinced through subtle movements and expressions, and perhaps conveys a sense of “realness” or personhood that unsettles presumptions about cultural or racial difference and the inequalities they perpetuate. I’ve sometimes thought that these films offer an implicit criticism of the thinness of most representations of poverty in the “third world,” but that’s an aftereffect rather than a guiding logic or motivation for me. I hope that, if the films are about anything, they’re not about moralizing or re-educating so-called Western audiences (although it’s okay if they do that), but something much more basic about experience itself.
Why this is important to me, I’m not sure. I do think that the aesthetic of these films is, to a degree, inherently political and posthumanistic, but I’m not sure if that is what motivates my work at its core. An additional and implied subject in these three films, and maybe all my work, has been time itself, about how its texture varies as it unfolds in the moving image and in our lives, which is one reason why I’ve kept my shots relatively long.
Of course, much of this is an intellectual explanation of what is simpler in practice. I’m frequently motivated by the joy of experiencing the world through the camera, or what Jean Rouch called the cine-trance, which I think is most evident in Untitled . I love how the frame allows me to re-order and direct experience, opening up new possibilities for knowing. Using the camera as an extension of the body in this way is physically challenging, at times exhausting, but also exhilarating.
MacDonald: In Kale and Kale , how fully are you meaning to play against assumptions? For some American viewers, the two men would look like pot-heads; is your gradual way of revealing their spiritual dimensions partly a way of teasing out the viewer’s prejudices?
Spray: The structure of the video is built to work against assumptions and stereotypes; however, I was more concerned with caste stereotyping than I was about whether or not the uncle and nephew would be perceived as potheads. Both Kales are Gāine, a caste of “untouchables” who traditionally play the sarangi, the stringed instrument you see at the end of Kale and Kale. I wanted the piece to unfold in such a way that it would emphasize their lives in the village, where they can carry themselves with more dignity than when, crouched at some stranger's doorway, they beg for a living. In Nepal marijuana is associated with the dreadlocked god Shiva, who is said to smoke in the Himalaya; and it has other religious connotations. So I wasn't fixated on smoking marijuana as a taboo to exploit, but as a fact of their lives within a cultural context that, admittedly, I don't care to explain to the audience. Of course, the two men do smoke an inordinate amount of weed and cigarettes and I could barely get a shot without a pipe or a dangling cigarette.
I suppose I've always thought of what you refer to as their spiritual dimension as their humanity, which I wanted to illustrate in their relationships with one another and with me the cameraperson. When I made Kale and Kale, I hoped that my camerawork would somehow evoke some of this.
MacDonald: What is the name of the ritual that occurs well into this piece, where the offscreen voice says “Put it on auntie too”?
Spray: The young woman who gives me the red dot (called a tikka in Nepali, tilak in Hindi) is the younger Kale’s daughter; she is a regular vessel for the goddess Kalika, who inhabits her body from time to time to send messages and make predictions. The girl had just done puja, a ritual to an image or embodiment of a deity (a rock or statue—what Christians call idols) that can involve all of the senses—recall the end of Forest of Bliss; that’s puja.
I don't mean to lead you astray with the goddess possession stuff, since anyone can do puja. The main point is that the food offered to gods or goddesses, frequently fruits and sweets (there’s animal sacrifice in Nepal, so meat too), are then given away to humans as blessed food, called prasad, and through its consumption a person is more fully and physically connected to the goddess. I've heard tikkas explained as blessings and as a kind of souvenir, an outward sign of that blessing.
I'm not Hindu, was raised Pentecostal, but am nothing at all now—a recovered hardcore teenage Christian.
MacDonald: I assume you shot the material you use in Monsoon-Reflections  and As Long As There's Breath  over a long period of time, though you use the cycle of the day as an organizing principle.
Spray: I've always thought that the two movies run a bit outside of time or against time; some of the shots are rather long (especially for the subject matter and quasi-narrative structures) and are concerned with mundane activities (I’m interested in subtle facial expressions and body language) and when pieced together they could represent one day, or not.
It’s been my hope that the videos give a sense of the way time can drag on in these villages, the way time is filled or killed with hanging around—epitomized by the long smoke break—and by doing extended, banal tasks such as grooming. Here in Nepal, people speak of “time pass,” using the English words, which designates a category of activity that allows one to cope with the burden of time, which to me feels at once lighter and yet thicker than time in the U.S. Monsoon-Reflections or As Long As There’s Breath could be one day, or several days, but the main idea is that days often blend together, especially since some subjects seem to have lost the will to keep track of the details of calendrical time.
MacDonald: Why the hyphen in the title of Monsoon-Reflections?
Spray: The title is a translation of the equivalent title "varshaa-vichaar" from a Nepali epic poem, Reflections on the Seasons, by Lekhnath Paudyal [written 1916, published 1934]. Hyphens are used throughout the Nepali-language poem to make compounds, which are called samaasaas in Sanskrit (where they are normally not hyphenated). Since Nepali is a modern language and the poem is relatively “modern,” hyphens are used throughout to help contemporary Nepali readers deal with extended multisyllabic compounds, such as theruttingelephantbespeckledwithpearllikedots, which are a hallmark of Sanskrit but difficult to make sense of today in Nepali or Hindi. Hence, varshaa-vichaar (monsoon-reflections) and not varshaavichaar (monsoonreflections). I retain the hyphen for the video as a subtle, if not obscure, reference to Paudyal's poems.
MacDonald: Are you still shooting film?
Spray: Most certainly still shooting, loving it, and not planning to stop anytime soon. Recently I worked with a collaborator, Pacho Velez, on the production of a super-16mm film on the one and only cable car in Nepal (it goes to and from the temple of the wish-fulfilling goddess). We’ve jokingly been calling it “ethnographic sci-fi” and, if the film doesn’t self-destruct, it should be strange and fun. In our conversations we’ve been thinking about it quite formally—as a series of extended shots portraying individual trips with different passengers inside 5’ X 5’ cable cars, structured over the course of a single cable car day, lunch break and all. A single trip is roughly the length of a roll of film, so extended shots should work nicely. We cast Bindu, Bhakte, and my Nepali moms (from Monsoon-Reflections and As Long as There’s Breath), and a number of people who we met along the way, including two Babas and a bride and groom. It’s borderline fiction, although you could also call it documentary. We plan to start editing in January.
I am still working with the family from Monsoon-Reflections and As Long as There’s Breath and hope to make a longer piece in the next year or two. I'm trying to find other ways to depict “time pass,” as well as Bhakte’s alcoholism and Chet’s bitter depressions, with a compassionate eye, and in such a way that they maintain a kind of onscreen dignity. I feel that if there is any redemption from the darker sides of these two personalities, it is found in Bindu’s admirable strength. I feel that I've just skimmed the surface with Monsoon-Reflections and As Long as There’s Breath, so I’d like to try once more to see if I can get it “right.”
I am forging ahead, but definitely look forward to doing more work close to “home,” where I can work without so much of the power/image politics mixed with guilt or the wondering if I should feel guilty when I don’t, which is also perhaps why I’m so much looking forward to the cable car film: for once it’s not about the suffering of brown people, but about holiday time, wish-fulfillment, and cool technologies: Aaton film cameras and Austrian cable cars (we borrowed the Aaton that Gardener used for Forest of Bliss from the Film Study Center).
MacDonald: Earlier you mentioned James Benning; your work with sound often evokes his films.
Spray: Yes; his films made a strong impression. 13 Lakes was the first that I saw, and is a favorite, and I had the good fortune to see the other Benning films that played at the Harvard Film Archive a few years ago. As a kind of homage to 13 Lakes, I’ve been working on a sound project about the lakes of the Pokhara Valley, but with a twist: I’m primarily interested in what lies under the surface—literally, as well as metaphorically and acoustically (I use hydrophones). I plan to compose the pieces with reference to local stories about drownings and malevolent water spirits. Called “7 Lakes,” it will be the dark, twisted sister to 13 Lakes (the serenity of which Benning pierces here and there with sound—the gunshots in the Crater Lake shot, for example). I’m also working on a sound project focused on the growing glacial lakes of the Khumbu region, including the Gokyo lakes and Imja Tsho.
Véréna Paravel/J.P. Sniadecki
MacDonald: What was the instigation for Foreign Parts?
Paravel: At the end of the spring Sensory Ethnography seminar in 2008, others were going to exotic places: Shanghai, Timbuktu, the Nile…but for me Queens, New York was a paradigm of exoticism. Ever since moving to New York, I’ve been fascinated by the Number 7 subway line through Queens, which passes through the neighborhoods of about a hundred and fifteen different nationalities and ethnic groups.
Sniadecki: It’s maybe the most diverse space in the world.
Paravel: Originally I had the idea of making an essentially anti-ethnographic film that would foreground ephemeral encounters, fortuitous interactions between people and places as I walked the full twelve miles under the Number 7 tracks. I would go traveling the world in my own backyard.
With this idea in mind, I started walking in Flushing and immediately the experience of walking-cum-filming was totally different from what I had expected. I felt totally there and totally empowered. I was filming everyone and everything. Sometimes people would come up to me to be filmed. One guy was handing out flyers and when he saw me filming, without saying a word he removed his shirt and began to dance in front of me, and soon I was filming his torso from maybe five centimeters away. Later, without saying a word, a woman opened her shirt to show me a scar that went all the way down her body. The camera and I were perhaps the catalyst for such craziness, and at times I felt like all the excess and insanity I was witnessing was beginning to inhabit me too.
MacDonald: This is the material that became 7 Queens?
Paravel: Right. I finished it in 2008 in the fall seminar.
I film and shoot still images obsessively; it’s almost a disease with me. I’m less interested nowadays in working with words, especially of the academic, discursive kind, than I am with sequences of images and sounds. We are, after all, imagistic creatures before we are linguistic ones. We all inhabit, are also inhabited by, fragments of imagery, of sounds, of partial memories, of sensations, felt, remembered and mis-remembered. Images of all kinds loom far larger in our cognitive and corporeal make-up than good English or French—than sentential language. Working with a camera and sound recorder gives me far freer reign to delve into all this unruly wealth of sensorial material than huddling over a keyboard.
As for what motivates my choices of subject, it’s hard to say. I don’t think any of us really knows. The real reasons are more unconscious than conscious. But I think there are always at least three factors in the mix for me. The first is, no matter how interesting something may be on paper, or as an articulated theme, there has to be a strong aesthetic dimension to it if I am to be drawn to it cinematically.
The second is that I respond to the world filming, much as I do when doing ethnographic fieldwork: I surrender to it body and soul. It colonizes my whole being, which takes a huge toll on me, but is also what makes both filming and fieldwork, at their best, so fulfilling. My life ends up conjoining with the lives of my subjects, and in the process I end up confronting myself, and all of my anxieties and obsessions, at the same time as I confront the world outside me.
And thirdly, there also has to be an intellectual aspect to the subject that intrigues me, that surpasses my aesthetic and corporeal engagement—something that sparks my curiosity, or a desire to make connections between the visible and the invisible, or the personal and the public, or the poetic and the political. That said, I have no interest in making films that seek to answer a question; I’m not a “militant,” as we say in France, an activist who wears her politics on her blouse—issue-based films generally leave me cold.
MacDonald: One characteristic of many of the films that have come out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab is the particular attention to the soundtrack. In 7 Queens, as in Foreign Parts and J.P.’s films, the sound is multilayered and dramatically expands the world revealed in the imagery. Is it fair to say that when you two are drawn to subjects it’s as much for how they sound as for how they look?
Paravel: Basically, when I approach a subject—people, a place—I’m constantly interrogating myself about how to access it on multiple levels. And to be sure, acoustic connections are as important for me, as alive in my mind, as vibrant in my body, as those we deem exclusively visual. There are as many acoustic protrusions to a person or a place that one can attach oneself to cinematically, as there are visual or tactile protrusions.
Right now, I'm working with Lucien on a new project about commercial fishing out of New Bedford, and spending a lot of time on one-hundred-foot groundfish dragger and scalloper boats out in the Atlantic, and in many ways it’s the sound of the boat at sea—its incessant engine, the winches, the waves, and the boat’s wake—that determine how I respond and react, and so shape the rhythm and tone of what and how I’m filming.
I should add that Ernst Karel, who also works at the Sensory Ethnography Lab, and mixed 7 Queens and Foreign Parts, has really taught me how to hear—his minimalist aesthetic and the rigor with which he listens to the world have marked my work.
Sniadecki: Sound has an allure all its own, and in all projects I am equally focused on sound and image. Sound-making (and recording) is also place-making, because sound both flows from and floods into bodies and environments, forming a kind of sonic orientation and meaning.
MacDonald: What exactly spurred your interest in Willets Point?
Paravel: I was shooting 7 Queens and happened upon and started filming an old car being literally shaken apart by a forklift truck. That encounter, that shot, ended up becoming the first shot of Foreign Parts, and led me into the whole maze of auto shops that make up the junkyard at Willets Point. When I first entered the junkyard, someone told me it was too dangerous for me to be in there—and I immediately knew this was going to be the subject of a film. From then on, I came back to Willets Point obsessively and started to get to know people.
What intrigued me from the get-go were all the contradictions I witnessed there—for me, the U.S. is an automobile culture, with both the putative freedoms and the imprisonment that cars represent in American history. Cars in the junkyard were at once being deconstructed and reconstructed—recycled into an infinity of fragments and spare parts, and also serving as shelters, as homes even, for many of the “homeless” inhabitants I found there. Cars as shrines to the culture of the country, its ethos of individualism, freedom, and conquest, but also as detritus, as rejects, as garbage—which is just the way the politicians and city of New York look at the people who scrape out a living there.
Sniadecki: When I first went to Willets Point with Véréna, we hadn’t worked out how the collaboration would go; we just started, and immediately the camera was floating between us with no problem. I remember one particular shot early on, made with the camera on a tripod. We were shooting a wall of rear-view mirrors and we framed a shot together, focusing in on one particular mirror, just as a guy working there walked into the mirror’s reflection and sat down, perfectly framed. We looked at each other and knew this was going to work out.
MacDonald: Foreign Parts goes through the four seasons; how much time did the two of you spend at Willets Point?
Paravel: While shooting 7 Queens, I spent almost all of that summer there, alone. And then J.P. and I spent the better part of two years going down there whenever we could find the time.
Sniadecki: We’d go back at least every month, sometimes twice a month. Of course, we would have preferred to live in New York, but at the beginning we couldn’t afford it. Plus, Véréna has two kids and a husband, and I had my Ph.D. coursework to do, and at the time, Demolition was getting screened in festivals, so I was travelling. We’d take the bus five hours from Boston, drop our stuff at some friend’s place, go straight to the junkyard, shoot all day, take the subway back to Brooklyn, sleep on our friends’ floors, wake up at six and do the same thing the next day.
We went every month for a year and a half. Well into the process we got some funding from the LEF Foundation, and were able to rent a room in Flushing and spend a full six weeks at Willets Point.
MacDonald: Were you always shooting when you were at the junkyard? Shooting video, you can easily end up with five hundred hours of footage.
Sniadecki: We filmed quite a bit, but we often put the camera down and hung out with people. We didn’t have a plan for this, like we’re gonna hang out for six months without the camera and take notes, then turn on the camera (which can be an effective way to make certain films). People work very hard at Willets Point, and work ethic is respected. To fit in, we needed some sort of labor to do. So, from the very beginning, we figured we’d just dive in and get to work; for us, filming and recording sound feels more like work than writing on a note pad with a pencil.
Some days we would hang out all day and shoot for four hours; other days, we would shoot four minutes—it just depended on the dynamics of the days. We definitely spent a lot of time not filming, sometimes drinking and talking until very late at night, probably later than we should have stayed (Willets Point can be a dangerous area at night).
MacDonald: A characteristic of many of the Sensory Ethnography Lab films is the relaxed way in which they negotiate the presence of the filmmaker filmmaking.
Sniadecki: It’s not my impression that we all agreed not to eliminate the presence of the filmmaker from the film. There was a particular moment in the development of anthropology when the field critiqued itself for not bringing forth the positionality of the ethnographer, which led to the “reflexive turn” where, instead of writing themselves out, anthropologists were including their reactions and their emotions and background and presence in their work.
That said, I don’t think that reflexive moves or involving the presence of the filmmaker is automatic within Sensory Ethnography, nor do I think that anthropologists are the only ones who are working reflexively.
Paravel: When we were filming Foreign Parts, we often had discussions about how to proceed, and if and how we might enter the film. We were open to everything; nothing was verboten and nothing was pre-ordained. We tried to follow the rhythm and the pace and the gestures of the place.
It seemed wrong to us to play the game of pure observational cinema à la Wiseman, where theoretically there is nobody behind the camera. We didn’t want to saddle the film with the weight of a fabricated absence. We were always trying to be shaped by the place, more than trying to impose an approach, a style, an idea on the place.
Sniadecki: It’s a question of being in a position of receptivity where you are marked by the people in the place you’re filming. When I first started to make Demolition, I didn’t want anything to do with self-reflexive filmmaking. I’d seen a number of films that had what seemed to be a token reflexive moment, and I didn’t like them—as if you could put a little bit of your voice here and there and be somehow absolved of some ethical dilemma by acknowledging your presence. I’d come to feel that my earlier film, Songhua, would have been better if you hadn’t heard my voice. I don’t feel that way now, but at the time of shooting Demolition, I was going to keep my voice and my presence out.
But even early on, my approach in Demolition was to let the experience of being there in that place shape the way I was making the film. As it turned out, conversations between the workers and me became part of the experience, and it would have been totally disingenuous to cut those moments out. If reflexivity happens to trigger or ignite or activate; if it produces something useful or interesting for the film, why say it’s off limits? Every shot carries the cinematographer’s sensibility and emotional state in some way.
MacDonald: How much footage of Willets Point did you end up with?
Paravel: A hundred and fifty hours.
Sniadecki: As we shot, we would watch the rushes and log as much as we could. We cut a trailer early on, and to do that we looked at a lot of the stuff on tape. When we received the LEF funding, we started shooting High Def, so in the end we were working with two different formats.
At a certain point, Véréna said, “We’re done shooting; we have to edit; we have to finish this film,” which was probably a good call, although I feel as though we could have filmed for a few more years. We stopped shooting exactly when we were starting to express certain, less obvious layers of Willets Point.
Then we watched all hundred and fifty hours twice…
Paravel: And cut the material down to forty hours…
Sniadecki: Then very quickly we made an eleven-hour assembly.
Paravel: At the end, we were editing eight-nine hours a day, using Final Cut Pro.
Sniadecki: Then I went to China, and we continued editing by email, sending files back and forth.
When we got down to the two hour mark, we had to think about the balance of many different elements. What was most challenging for us was how to disclose and deal with the political backdrop of Willets Point, which could easily have colonized the film and taken away from the other aspects of the place that we wanted to communicate. I don’t know that we struck the right balance; we went back and forth about it, up until the very end, when we had a deadline for a screening at the Locarno festival.
Paravel: What was guiding me was the idea of making a film juste—I don’t know how to say that in English. A film that was just, fair, adequate to its subject, that found the proper balance between all the themes I was trying to pursue. We needed to arrive at the right ratio between the car as creature and the human creature.
MacDonald: During recent decades, there’s been a lot of discussion about the ethics of filming other people, a discussion that can ignore certain realities. I think my favorite moment in Foreign Parts is when the guy doing a sort of horsey dance performs for the camera, then says, “Thank you,” as he leaves. We forget how important it is to be noticed and to feel noticed.
Paravel: Thank you for saying that. I’m really happy about that shot. It’s a quintessential 7 Queens moment—a kind of spontaneous combustion that came out of an accidental encounter.
The man’s performance has a beauty to it because of his agency and his confidence in front of the camera, and because it happened by serendipity rather than by hard work on our part—it’s not as if we won his acceptance through two years of patient, earnest ethnographic fieldwork whereby we sought to insinuate ourselves into a position of invisibility that would get him and everyone else to forget about the camera and numbly accept our presence. In a sense, there’s a whole world encapsulated in that one shot, all the comprehension and miscomprehension that unites and divides people from each other, all the complexity of his being, and simultaneously the impossibility of communication between people. It’s dialogical, but at the same time a false dialogue. What comes out of his mouth is more guttural than verbal.
The shot deploys all the stages of the interpersonal encounter: approach, seduction, exchange, gift and counter-gift, and finally abandonment. He interpolates us, he has an a priori conception of what a camera is, what it can do, what it does despite itself, and what, for that brief moment of play, he can do with it—for himself, for us, for unseen others. He offers us something; he offers the world something, in his performance. And at the end—this is the abandonment—he escapes from us, and also from the film, and from the spectators who would imprison him within the carapace of a cinematic character. He surpasses the film, as all human beings do in the end.
Sniadecki: That gentleman, who goes by the nickname of Crazy Horse by the way, is in some sense the director of that scene; he’s the one calling the shots. We were just in a stance of being open to what he wanted us to see.
MacDonald: Did the Willets Point people get to see the film?
Sniadecki: The unofficial (but for us official) premiere was in the junkyard, and the interaction between the film and those who came to the screening was kind of amazing. Almost everyone who was in the film saw it. At the time when the film was premiering, Luis was back in prison. But everyone else who had any kind of role in the film and also many people who weren’t in the film came to the screening that we’d organized with UnionDocs and Rooftop Productions. They helped us bring a screen, a PA system, and a projector to Willets Point. People would stand up and holler when they’d see one of their friends or when they’d see themselves in the film.
Paravel: Actually, Foreign Parts came alive to me, became a film, the day we showed it in the junkyard.
Sniadecki: We were pretty anxious about what the response would be. But during the screening Marco, who owns the diner and is in the film, leans over and goes, “Ah, it’s beautiful. You captured all the rhythms and beauties of this place.” We were surprised and excited that he found our approach and aesthetic pleasing, thinking he might have been anticipating a more activist film.
Paravel: I think he, and the others too, understood what we were trying to do, and I think they appreciated the film and recognized themselves in this portrait.
People from Willets Point also came to the New York Film Festival screening the next day, and later, to the MoMA screening. At the end of the New York Film Festival screening, I asked Julia, the little woman you see dancing sometimes, “How was it?” and she said, “I slept so well.” I think she enjoyed just being there; she’d been living in a van for seventeen years. And there was a very beautiful moment at MoMA, with Joe, the one legal resident of Willets Point. He was sitting at the back. Somebody asks us a question and suddenly Joe is standing up, answering the question, and everybody is listening to him. At the end, somebody thanks us for the film, and as I’m about to answer, Joe takes the microphone and says, “Thank you!” It was his film, too.
MacDonald: I understand you two are planning a new project.
Sniadecki: Yes, we’re planning, scheming, looking for money. In south China there’s an island called Hainan, and on that island there’s a town called Haikou. I found a building with an abandoned lot right behind a good friend’s house. It’s a concrete slab shell where a bunch of Miao migrants (in English we would say Hmong) from south China, northern Laos, and Vietnam have moved to reclaim this space and make it their own. They’ve built living quarters in there, and they go out into the city to collect plastic bottles for recycling. In and of itself, this is fascinating, but there’s also a gigantic sand mound next to the area—they go to the ocean once a week and dig up sand to deposit there and then sell to construction places (actually not such a good idea because salt in the sand is bad for cement). The children play on this sand mound, transforming it into a playground. So we’re going to work on a film about Miao migrants, recycling, and the magical sandbox of the imagination.